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Trade unions in private sector in Pakistan, by and large, can be aptly described as in-house unions, pocket unions, or fill-in-the-blanks unions. Radical labour leaders have gradually been eased out and there are more moderate and sensible workers’ representatives now who base their future on practical economic solutions, who adhere to the concept of industrial peace, and who utilise human skills of negotiations and consideration to hammer out agreements rather than resorting to strikes and other anti-industry tactics to achieve their objectives. They are also equal partners with enlightened employers in Workers Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (WEBCOP) that has been universally acclaimed as a pioneer initiative.

Today, efforts are being made by social and human rights activists to send out motivating signals to the “dying breed” to learn from the global initiatives undertaken by various labour federations who, in recognizing the effects of globalization on the working class, are banding together in an effort to resuscitate the terminal patient. Interestingly, the various global unity groups, having a focused agenda, have not been able to bring about a renaissance within the disarrayed and disorganized labour movement in Pakistan. Although these global programs do have members and linkages in Pakistan, nevertheless there is no display of a trickle-down effect among either local unions or the general workforce.

Some activists cite the 2020 International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index of the World’s Worst Countries for Workers. The ITUC Global Rights Index depicts the world’s worst countries for workers by rating 144 countries on a scale from 1-5+ based on the degree of respect for workers’ rights. The prescribed workers’ rights are absent in countries with the rating 5 while violations occur on an irregular basis in countries with the rating 1. Pakistan has dipped to rating 5 (no guarantee of rights). ITUC identified Pakistan as one of 32 countries “with the rating of 5 that are the worst countries in the world to work in. While the legislation may spell out certain rights, workers have effectively no access to these rights and are therefore exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labour practices”. Notwithstanding this rating, many activists have only been highlighting the negativity against Pakistan whereas the rating 5 also includes Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Turkey, etc., in the same rating. What these activists also fail to underscore is that there are nine countries in 5+ rating that do not guarantee rights due to breakdown of the rule of law.

Pakistan is not the only country violating many of the labour rights. However, what some activists complain that “the government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat” is nothing but opprobrium usually heard at May Day rallies. The employers or the governments are not principally responsible for the union movement to lose steam. The business dynamics have changed, especially when a massive inflow of migrant workers started coming into urban cities like Karachi, Faisalabad and Lahore. The power of union leaders proportionately diminished when labourers accepted the conditionalities of working as contract workers rather than so-called permanent employees. Their concern was the current continued paycheck rather than gratuity, bonus, leave encashment, etc. Nowadays, many workers do not want to hear about EOBI, Social Security, NIRC, etc. Furthermore, with more entrants in the labour market, the bargaining power of the worker correspondingly reduced too. Unskilled workers are available at even less than the guaranteed minimum wage as ordained by the government. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary ITUC, is highly admired and regarded by this writer who, in his opinion, is the beacon and guiding force for workers around the globe. She once stated that “for social justice, economic justice and stability, we need negotiated, planned outcomes that people can touch at both the national and industry and enterprise level”.

Pakistan faces another labour problem too. While skilled or technically competent people are also in demand here as well as in foreign countries, there is scant scope for the unskilled, with low literacy quotient, to obtain higher paying jobs. The housing sector would be the new booming industry in Pakistan but the dilemma is that there are few skilled workers even in this sector. The trade bodies related to construction and housing, such as ABAD, do not have a game plan to deal with the expected upsurge, especially in low-cost housing. To make matters worse, even the fifty plus industries that depend on housing and construction are also deficient in developing or having a skilled and trained workforce. Here too, even the unions have not demonstrated any attempt to encourage unskilled workers to learn new skills.

Fortunately, today there are some moderate and erudite labour leaders who are well-versed in labour laws, who are involved in intensive lobbying for amendments in various labour related legislation, and who have a respectable command of the working environment. However, certain work-related issues often escape their focus. There is limited attention towards motivating workers to enhance productivity, to maintain hygiene at workplaces, to improve punctuality, to ensure education and health for workers and families, and to promote the orientation of safety and disaster management procedures. Sadly, there are some labour leaders who still continue with their trite litany about “appointment letters” and inflation or resort to long-winded rhetoric even at agenda-focused meetings.

The power of trade unions, as stated above, has diminished primarily because of the labour leaders themselves and less due to employers asserting their influence or the government turning a blind eye.

The salvation for labour mostly lies in per force implementation of the eight core international labour standards. Moreover, compliance of 27 Conventions, that include the eight core ILS, is crucial if Pakistan is to enjoy the fruits of the EU GSP Plus status for the next decade after the present status expires. Winston Churchill, the great statesman, very rightly said that “some see private enterprise as a predatory target to be hunted, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon.”


(The writer is Former President of Employers Federation of Pakistan)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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